History & Culture

The tribal way of life

A Feeling of Community: Toda women dancing during a function Photo: PTI  

A Kaadar boy living in the Anamalais sits in a corner with some bamboo and gets to work. He smoothens the reed, creates sharp teeth and polishes it to a shine. Then, he carves out elaborate designs — a comb. It is for his beloved. If she accepts the comb, she becomes his.

When the Malayaalis go looking for a prospective bride, they swirl a stick in the air to let people know they are coming. If the prospective bride’s people take the stick inside their home, it means the proposal is welcome. If the stick is thrown back, the bridegroom’s party returns without protest.

This is how tribals communicate. Without many words being spoken, said C. Maheswaran, director, Tribal Research Centre, Ooty. He recently delivered a talk on ‘Lifestyles of Kongunadu Tribes’, as part of the monthly lecture organised by The Vanavarayar Foundation.

Tribes have influenced the lifestyle of Kongunadu in many ways, he said. Why, even our city is named after an Irula tribal chieftan, Kovan!

While some tribes have learnt to move on with time, others have held fast to a vanishing way of life, he said. Which is why, even today, some tribes follow the ancient practice of ‘kalavu vazhkai’ (living together out of wedlock) before ‘karpu vazhkai’ (marriage). And, also why when a Toda woman gets pregnant, her husband takes her a small gift made of shrub and grass blades, shaped like a traditional Toda house. With this, he announces that the child is his and will be born into his clan.

Actions speak

Maheswaran spoke about how tribals have adopted a refined communication technique, one that relies less on words and more on action. This has prevented wordy duels and arguments. For instance, when going to seek a boy’s hand, the elders would say: “We have some seeds, can you give us the land to sow it in?” If all went well, a stick (representing the boy) would be left in front of the girl’s house, letting everyone know she has been spoken for.

Though many tribes live a hand-to-mouth existence, they have not forgotten about graceful community living. For example, the Pazhiyar have to dig deep into the hard ground for edible tubers. It may take a man well over half a day to find the tuber, but once he does, he will snap off only one bit, and leave the rest for others. En route to the digging site, if he saw a honeycomb, he would mark it with a cross, as if booking it. If another man came to the forest to extract honey and found nothing, he would still not go near the marked honeycomb. “That’s the kind of grace they exhibit,” said Maheswaran.

Most traditions have survived because of oral narratives, said the expert on tribes. And, the feeling of community is very strong. “Every occasion, be it building a temple, a wedding or a funeral, sees them get together. And, when it comes to training adolescents, the old tribals — men and woman — ease them into the ways of their world.”

The welfare of each tribe is paramount to its members. Which is why, among the Aalu Kurumbas, once a year, seven people go out into the forest, for seven days, without informing anyone. They live off the jungle, in a bid to call upon Nature to protect their village. When they return, they cook pongal in seven pots and feed everyone — a case of the individuals working for social good, pointed out Maheswaran.


Kongunadu is home to 14 of the36 tribes in Tamil Nadu. All the six Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups in Tamil Nadu — Toda, Kota, Kurumba, Irula, Paniya and Kadunaickaya — are in the Nilgiris.

The Maha Malasar or Mala Malasar in Valparai can converse with elephants. They work as mahouts.

Kurumbas are known for their painting and black magic; Todas for their embroidery; Kotas for their pottery and carpentry; and Kadunaickayas for their expertise in honey collection.

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Printable version | Nov 26, 2021 7:52:33 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/history-and-culture/the-tribal-way-of-life/article3907793.ece

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